Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Pixar has been gifting us with tales of unlikely friendships for about 20 years. From TOY STORY’s Buzz and Woody, to UP’s Carl and Russell, to most recently with INSIDE OUT’s Joy and Sadness, they’ve created somewhat of a gold standard with their offerings. Now comes director Peter Sohn’s THE GOOD DINOSAUR’s Arlo and Spot. While the pair aren’t nearly as indelible as those who’ve come before, their playground and the pioneering animators and technology that helped create it are what make the film truly remarkable.
Our tale begins with the premise that 65 million years ago, an asteroid missed Earth, sparing the dinosaurs from extinction. Millions of years later, on the plains of middle America, apatosaurus Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) is born to Poppa Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances MacDormand). Similar to Nemo in FINDING NEMO, he’s not like his brother and sister; he’s gawky, awkward on his knock-kneed legs, and terrified of just about everything. Via foreshadowing from Arlo’s dad about how, if he’s ever lost, “the river will guide you home,” and life lessons about earning “your mark doing something bigger than yourself,” and getting “through fear to see the beauty on the other side,” it’s clear this will all funnel into Arlo’s heroes journey. And sure enough it does, when tragedy strikes and he’s swept far away from home with only a cave child nicknamed Spot (Jack Bright) as his sidekick.
Sohn’s aesthetics are incomparable. It’s astounding how far technology has developed since many of the studio’s early works. From the way wind blows the leaves, to water in the nearby stream, to the way puffy white clouds roll by, the film’s photo-realistic backgrounds occasionally look like concept paintings. It’s easy to get swept away in these sweeping vistas. Sohn utilizes scale and scope, making this the most cinematic film Pixar has done to date. Textures like Arlo’s rubbery skin and Spot’s wild hair pop and beguile. It provides an interesting juxtaposition, considering the characters who populate this re-imagined world are drawn more in line with a traditional animated cartoon.
With all the breathtaking scenery on display, it’s disappointing that Meg LaFeuve’s screenplay doesn’t reinvent the wheel too. She, and the four other “story by” credited writers, play around with familiar elements from films past. Though they spin a clever twist on the traditional “boy and his dog” story, making Arlo “the boy” and human Spot “the dog” who therapeutically gets him through major obstacles, they utilize things we’ve seen before. It feels heavily influenced by THE LAND BEFORE TIME courtesy of Arlo’s journey to find his mom after becoming lost. Instead of THE LION KING’s stampede, it’s the flood of rushing water that claims dad’s life. There’s even a MIDNIGHT RUN-esque aspect to it, where the enemies become friends during the road trip. Like most road trip films, this is populated with colorful characters – the standout being Forrest Woodbush (voiced by Sohn), an eccentric, offbeat Styracosaurus who rolls with a hilarious gaggle of creatures.
When we dig deeper, there are other slightly problematic elements. It’s heart is in the right place, but the film seems to be teaching kids to become fearless and independent which, to me, seems reckless. Yes, kids, there are legitimate things in this world you should fear. It’s not until late in the second act during a campfire chat with Butch (Sam Elliot) and his kids Nash (A.J. Buckley) and Ramsey (Anna Paquin) where it’s corrected: fear is what keeps you safe. The sentiment that you must deal with your trauma or it will keep coming back is commendable. However, the way it’s handled here is clumsy. Like a girl getting her ears pierced at the mall, Spot keeps distracting Arlo in a way to guide him through fear. And when he’s finally forced to confront it during the third act, it’s for a convoluted reason – a reason that’s uncharacteristic and inauthentic to a compassionate creature like Arlo. Why can’t his journey just be about getting home and forgoing a needless conflict?
Nevertheless, THE GOOD DINOSAUR still ranks high above Pixar’s mediocre (A BUG’S LIFE) and terrible films (BRAVE, CARS 2). There ought to be asterisk next to “Good,” stipulating that in terms of the animation, it’s not just good – it’s revolutionary, breathtaking and boundary-pushing.
THE GOOD DINOSAUR opens on November 25.